Trans Ed 101: transsexual


Have you noticed that this word, “transsexual,” is no longer used in regular conversation about, um, transsexuals, er, I mean, transgender folks?

If you’ve not noticed, perhaps it’s for the same reason I couldn’t figure out what was missing from my buddy’s face after he’d shaved his mustache. It’s hard to detect what isn’t there. While my friend wasn’t wearing the mustache for a century, believe it or not the modern age of trans is coming up on being one hundred years old.

Soon after surgery was introduced in Germany, in the early 1920s, to conform the male genitals to those of a female, “transsexualism” was coined, which means “to go across from one sex to the other.” It took until nearly 1950 for the word to be translated from German to English. Dr. Harry Benjamin, who is essentially the USA’s father of all things transsexual, popularized the term in his 1966 book on the topic.

Also in the mid ‘60s, “transgender” was created by John Oliven. By the 1990s, “transgender” became the umbrella term for the entire spectrum of people who are trans, with “transsexual” a specific subset. (All historical information gathered from the Wikipedia page, “Transsexual.”)

Nowadays, though “transsexual” and “transgender” are true synonyms, one rarely hears “transsexual.” Besides being reduced to a subset of transgender folks, it also has been largely corrupted, often used to speak unfavorably about “trannies” and “she males,” and others in what are viewed as less than savory occupations, or about whom the speaker is intentionally degrading. When the media want to sensationalize a headline, they will use the older term, as in “Big star caught with transsexual hooker!”

In my reading of scholarly books on the topic, I have found “transsexual” still to be used in an honorable way, to be a term for those transgender persons who have undergone a surgical change to their genitals, the procedure which I have always referred to by its old name, sex reassignment surgery (SRS), which is more often now called gender confirmation (or affirmation) surgery (GCS/GAS) and, even more recently and picking up steam, simply as bottom surgery, which allows one to speak of the variety of possibilities of surgery for both genetic males and females.

There is one thing that I like better about “transsexual” over “transgender,” and it is that it does not need a qualifying word to accompany it. One may speak of a transsexual, but not of a transgender. I can say that I am a transsexual, but to use the other term means I have to add a word: I am a transgender woman.

Transgenderal will never be a word.

Some simply add an “s,” referring to transgenders. If you want to raise the dander of a trans person, go ahead and do this. Um, please, don’t. Besides, I have noticed that the predominance of those who call us transgenders are those who disrespect us.

I like specificity in words. The more specific one is, the better understood with the fewest words. Thus, I hope an honorable usage of “transsexual” does not completely fall out of favor. Indeed, now that I have had SRS, I identify as a transgender person who is a transsexual.

Ultimately, one term is not inherently better than the other. The “sex” of “transsexual” points to the sex characteristics regarding the mismatch of brain and body, while the “gender” of “transgender” focuses on the experienced identity of the individual. It is my opinion that “gender” is winning over “sex” because how one identifies speaks for us better, referring to how we see the entirety of our lives.

“Sex” and “sexual” immediately takes one’s mind to one’s genitals, and being trans is tremendously more than about one’s genitals. For many, being trans has nothing at all to do with the genitals.

Even more, being trans has nothing to do with having genital surgery, as with when the word was originated.  For many reasons—no interest or need to have surgery, or it’s not economically feasible—many trans folks never have surgery, and consider themselves fully transitioned.

As much as “transgender” came to replace “transsexual,” the simple “trans”—removing “gender”—is taking over for both of the full terms. For example, I am a trans woman.

Because to be trans is way more than simply male or female, woman or man, in our trans group meetings we have come to refer to those who are “trans feminine,” “trans masculine,” and “non-binary.”

“Non-binary,” you ask? Indeed, a fairly new term, and one which has made great headway toward regular usage. To learn more about that, stay tuned to more Trans Ed 101 posts.